July 19, 2024
Why the otter is better than the beaver and other Canada Day lessons with Indigenous elder Duke Redbird
Redbird will be here throughout the summer to talk Indigenous history with anyone who is curious.
Redbird will be here throughout the summer to talk Indigenous history with anyone who is curious.

If Duke Redbird could make a suggestion this Canada Day weekend, he’d like to pitch you on the otter.

Every country has a creature that represents its collective consciousness, the Chippewa-Potawatomi elder says as he sits on his houseboat-turned-art installation at the Ontario Place marina. England has the lion, the top of the food chain, the empire builder. India has its elephant, big like its population. And America has its bald eagle, a predator who soars high with arrows in its left talon.

When he gets to Canada’s beaver, he recites a poem he wrote 30 years ago about the animal working all night, transforming a bubbling stream into a putrid pond that the more majestic animals want nothing to do with.

“My child, do not become a beaver and build for yourself a den, this is what modern man does with his brick and stone and sand until his mind is like that stagnant lake filled with weird wicked wretches that get no peace,” Redbird says in quick staccato as he approaches his closer: “Then he cries to his Creator in desperation, please God, my God, deliver me from damnation.”

Redbird, who is a member of the Saugeen First Nation, would rather have the otter as a national symbol — the “happy-go-lucky” mammal dives “into the unknown” to find small rocks, and then “comes to the surface, puts the tool on its belly, and opens its mussel shells and clam shells,” he says, all the while, “looking in the heavens at the cosmos.”

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